Review: ‘On the President’s Orders’

Hot Docs 2019

6 mins read

On the President’s Orders
(UK, 71 min.)
Dir. James Jones and Olivier Sarbil
Programme: World Showcase (North American Premiere)

Shot with the stark precision and chiaroscuro tones of a Michael Mann film, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil’s On The President’s Orders would be one of the most harrowing escapist thrillers of the year if it weren’t for the sombre realisation that the horror captured is entirely, apocalyptically real.

Starting with a security camera view of a drive-by execution, we cut to a speech by the Philippines’ strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte, drumming up applause from a crowd as he explicitly ratchets his war on drug users and pushers to the point of state sanctioned murder.

We meet Jemar Modequillo, a charismatic if mercurial police chief of the Caloocan district brought in to restore order. Early scenes show promise, as discipline is clearly deeply required from a police force that can’t even follow simple orders on a gun range. In time the situation in the area settles, creating a kind of calm for a while. When the conversation politically needs to shift, and a crackdown is ordered, the brutality increases with scapegoats made of the poor and police alike.

There are many films that have looked at this crisis in the Philippines, including extraordinary fiction works like 2017’s Neomanila that played last year’s Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. Jones and Sarbil capture the reality on the streets with a heightened sense of cinematic style, not to soften the blow but to show the performative nature of this conflict. Clearly, Duterte wants to create headlines in order to sway the general populace and turn the conversation away from other topics that may be more compromising for his leadership. So drug addicts and the poor of Caloocan become inadvertent actors in a larger piece of political propaganda.

The police dress the part, their facemasks carved into surreal skeletal rictus that complete a militarized uniform. Behind those masks are officers obeying orders from on high, caught up themselves by forces that have turned them into mere pawns to be used for whatever the leadership demands. The population of the area seems inured to the violence; there’s a sombre acceptance which allows a group of young people to eke out whatever joys they get from dance clubs and tattoo parlours, scarred by the death that surrounds them but impotent to do anything about it.

There are no answers to be found in the film, no moments of catharsis that might suggest that somehow this situation is going to get better. If anything, it’s a warning about the global rise of authoritarian regimes that have led to the deliberalizing of democracies, where the majority supports (at least temporarily) a ruler that will “clean the streets” no matter the cost. When the full footage of the drive-by shooting is filmed you see an even more quotidian horror, the people standing around dumbfounded but slow to act as a man flails around, shot twice but still breathing after collapsing on the ground. There’s no ambulance that comes to his aid, no police that arrive to save him at the last moment. It takes minutes before he is awkwardly, painfully thrown into a private taxi, while a crowd of hundreds including children gather to passively watch the ineffectual and increasingly macabre attempts at rescue.

We passively watch the events as well, as an audience a world away that’s as impotent to make any change as those watching the shot man handled like a sack of refuse. With its remarkable access and precise tone On The President’s Orders draws us in, making us aware of our own inadequacies to elicit change, while feeling the plight of those who are directly affected by power run amok. It’s a harrowing, humbling film that through its visually stunning look and intense storytelling, demonstrates with great skill the heart of darkness of this part of the world, illustrating the horrifically banal nature of institutional violence in a way that’s emotionally and intellectually shattering.

On the President’s Orders screens:
-Sun, Apr. 27 at 8:30 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Mon, Apr. 29 at 3:15 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Sun, May 5 at Hart House

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub fpr more coverage from this year’s festival!

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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